I’ve been doing some thinking about marriage lately, in light of the recent decision by New York State in the U.S. to legalise homosexual marriage, as reported by the New York Times.
I myself am married. I committed this act when I was all of nineteen years old. The person I married was just eighteen, and we had managed to make a little baby together the year before. Of all the things we did in those early years, marrying was certainly technically the easiest. It was one terrific day. But getting ourselves a Christian marriage was definitely much harder, despite the fact we both wanted it, were old enough, heterosexual and Christian.
We knew we wanted to get married pretty much right after we found out I was pregnant with the little baby. It never occurred to us we should have an abortion, or adopt. We wanted to be together, and we wanted to put things right. We felt that our relationship had broken lots of rules, and violated people’s expectations of us at that time. Whose rules? Whose expectations? Well, our families of origin, the church, and our peers at the youth group we belonged to. We wanted to let them all know we were prepared to do the right thing after being pretty much finished with doing the wrong thing. We figured we could be together, and have people think well of us again, by getting married all Christian-like.
But it proved not to be quite that simple. Just in case we’d made the grave mistake of thinking doing the right thing was as easy as doing the wrong thing, the leaders of our church youth group asked us to stand up in front of all our peers at the Friday night youth service and apologize to everyone for what we’d done. Right after vomiting from the sheer horror of it, we agreed to do it. We said sorry for letting everyone down, and explained to everyone how we fully intended to marry and make a family together. We thought the speech was going quite well when the assistant youth pastor stood up and remarked “Well, we’ll just see how it goes, won’t we?” I.e.: It’s all right to say these things, but time will tell. Wow, we so want you to be our associate senior pastor in five years time. Not.
Getting everyone’s approval was clearly going to be more difficult than we’d thought. Ever hopeful for the blessing of the church on our relationship, right after our lovely little baby was born we brought him to our church to ask our senior pastor if we could have a public dedication for him on a Sunday morning in church, just like everyone else. We were told to come back after we were married. Not long after that, our first piece of pre-marriage counseling included this little gem. “So, seeing as you two had sex before marriage, one of your big concerns will obviously be what other contraventions of God’s laws you are capable of breaking. Are you at all concerned that the other may have affairs because both your ability to do the right thing is demonstrated to be so poor?” We didn’t get any more counseling after that.
All of this hassle, just so we wouldn’t be living in sin. So, just what do you call it when people take money for putting a young couple through that?
For years I had this morbid fear that perhaps the pastor who married my husband and I had forgotten to submit the paperwork to the authorities and we’d get a letter one day to say we weren’t really married at all. I would lie in bed and worry about it, then one day I realized that if this were true, God already knew. Maybe that’s why, I reasoned, everything is always going wrong for us? Maybe we never have any money and fight all the time because we are still sinful in the eyes of God?
Shame is a hard stain to shift.
I believe in marriage, but I don’t insist that others do. However, when people have said to me in the past that marriage is “just a piece of paper,” I have been known to reply “so is a drivers license.” I know we Christians have tried to tell people there are consequences for not getting the piece of paper and acting as if you are married, and we have given it a dirty name to make people feel bad for doing it. It’s called “living in sin”. But you don’t stop living in sin once you get married, I can assure you. The piece of paper will not guarantee the level of maturity and wisdom required for a peaceful, non-combative partnership, but the way the church carries on you’d think a marriage license was some kind of diploma for emotional intelligence. It certainly ain’t that.
I am actually still deciding if marriage is the exclusively “Christian” institution we have made it out to be. I’ve been doing some research trying to find out exactly when marriage as such began to be mentioned in the Bible. Old Testament marriages would certainly have been Judaic ceremonies: at least from the time Judaism began to be practiced. However, I find no evidence that Adam and Eve were Jewish, nor their direct descendants, so no such ceremony could have occurred in their instance, yet Adam is referred to as Eve’s husband, and Eve as Adams wife as early as Genesis 3. Also, I cannot find a text for a marriage ceremony as such in the Bible. Marriage, wives and husbands just seem to start to be mentioned at some point, right back early in Genesis, way before the Mosaic Law, or Jewishness are.
Despite this Biblical ambiguity, Christians talk about marriage as if we invented it in the first place and only ever meant to loan it to the world, with the condition we always reserve the right to decide who gets to do it. However, practically every religion, people and culture in the world has its own marriage rites. Regardless, Christianity continue to claim their self-professed right to dictate the conditions of everyone’s marriage in the whole world, even though marriage existed way before Christianity, before Judaism, even before people were separated by language, into tribes, cultural groups or nations and even before government. According to the Bible. I’m not making this up.
Whilst I can’t understand Christian’s meanness on marriage, I can understand why people who aren’t allowed to get married would like to. There are various social and financial advantages for married couples, and I think everyone ought to be allowed to access these advantages if they are citizens of the society providing them. I do not believe that variances you were born with are sufficient qualification to exclude a person from marriage. The debate about inherent variances versus conscious choices will have to wait for another time, but suffice to say that even if being homosexual is a “lifestyle choice”, it still doesn’t mean human rights must relinquished in exchange for it, any more than choosing to become a Christian should, which, it could also be argued, is perhaps just as much a “lifestyle choice”.
I’ve observed that Christians have a droll tendency to hoard up all the fun and special things in life like marriage and Christmas and being a family and call them Christian even though they’re really not. The fact is you don’t have to be a Christian to love someone, to be able to make a vow and keep it, to sign a contract or to even have a child. Marriage and family are not Christian institutions; they are human ones. It ought to be okay for all human beings to be able to get married if they want to, anyway they want to, for whatever reason they choose. Christians just don’t get to make up the rules for all the human beings, any more than Buddhists or Muslims do. Boy, do we kick up a stink when they try it.
I believe that Christians, in their moral exuberance, must not require that the basic human rights and freedoms of non-Christians be diminished in any way unless they are prepared to give up their own rights and freedoms equally. Lord knows, we’re not. A few months ago, a church in the town we were living protested publicly about a festival organised by the homosexual community that the council was considering approving. At the same time as they were protesting, this particular church enjoyed the blessing of the very same council for their own public Christmas celebration in December. However, the church did not recognise that in effect their protest against the homosexual event was absurd. They wanted the basic right of gay people to gather and celebrate and run a legal, family-oriented event in their town to be denied, whilst their own right to do the same be upheld. Ironically, later in the year and unrelated to the protest, the local business that had sponsored the church event withdrew their support, and Carols by Candlelight had to be cancelled. However, the gay event went ahead, and was a great success.
You know, in another time and place, not very long ago, people with dark skin were not allowed to marry one another, or anyone else. Instead, they were obliged to continue to live and work in an elite, aloof, and very Christian society that made them into pariahs and slaves. However, these people, the ones whom they said were not even qualified to be called human, married each other in secret and lived as married people just the same. The stupid, white, religious people who said they couldn’t just had to suck it up and get the hell over it.
I believe history may be about to repeat itself.
My marriage is one of the things that has made me the happiest – and also the most miserable – in my life, but if I have taken it for granted in the past, I do so no longer. This isn’t just because of the trials we have been through to stay together, but also because I cannot imagine what it might have been like if we had been forbidden to marry in the first place. For me now to think that some people in my community are denied the right to marry for what I consider fairly redundant reasons almost makes me want to divorce on principle. It’s not that I hold contempt for marriage, on the contrary, but I do hold contempt for the conditions others place upon it in the name of the Christ I follow, a Christ who has shown to me nothing but love, compassion, acceptance, leadership, support, forgiveness and mercy.
Marriage is an institution I have come to respect and revere, and which has afforded me social privileges which prior to now, I hadn’t even considered would have been withheld if the person I loved and had children with were a woman. My conscience and my Christianity prevents me from continuing to passively accept these privileges I enjoy without ensuring they are also available to others if I can see no reason, political, moral or otherwise, why they ought to be withheld. Christians may continue to deny the rights of others in the community to marry, claiming marriage is a Christian institution, but Biblically, marriage was a human institution way before it was ever a Christian one. I believe Christians need to be careful they do not stray back into the stupid, white, religious practices that have alienated many people from the church in the past. I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from Anne Lamott, in turn quoting Father Tom Weston: you can be sure your God is a god of your own invention when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.